Pierzynski accepts reputation at odds with passion he brings to life
A.J. Pierzynski has long been considered one of game's most annoying players
Pierzynski has been a family man and a passionate and productive teammate
This season, Pierzynksi has hit a career-high 23 home runs and has an .887 OPS
"Everyone wants a villain," A.J. Pierzynski said. "Look at what LeBron James has gone through the past few years. My teammates get the best kick of it. When we go to Oakland, Anaheim, San Francisco, Minnesota, Cleveland, I get loud boos. Guys on my team can't wait to see that and to hear that."
Pierzynski is 35, and in his 15th season as a major league catcher, the last eight of which he has spent with the White Sox. He does not, in conversation, seem like much of a villain. He is introspective and intelligent: he was a member of the National Honor Society at Orlando's Dr. Phillips High, and before the Twins made him a third round pick in the 1994 draft he had been recruited by Yale. He is a devoted husband and father to two young children. He knows by heart all the back roads to Disney World, he has a room in his house entirely devoted to LEGOs, and he counts among his longtime friends Joey Fatone, who sang baritone for the erstwhile boy band 'N Sync. But boos rain down upon him wherever he goes, and the dislike for him is not limited to fans of teams other than his own.
As with most every collection of several hundred young men, Major League Baseball contains its share of miscreants: drunk drivers, identity falsifiers, drug abusers, domestic abusers, aggravated assaulters, even the alleged perpetrator of a hate crime. Pierzynski is none of those things -- he has never, his mother swears, even thrown a punch -- and yet, in polls commissioned by publications, including this one, over the past half-dozen years or so, he has been voted by his opponents as the player they would most like to see beaned (2006), baseball's meanest player (2011) and baseball's most hated player (2012). "Now, when those polls come out, it'd be a big upset if somebody else won," he said, resignedly.
Antipathy for Pierzynski runs so deep that even though he ranked second among all catchers in home runs and OPS and first in RBIs as mid-season approached, he knew that he would not be selected to play in the All-Star Game in Kansas City. "I said, 'A.J., do you think you're going to make All-Stars?'" recalled his mother, Mary Jane Harrelson, recounting a late June phone conversation. "He said, 'Mom, it's a popularity contest. You think I'm going to make All-Stars?'" Pierzynski did not make All-Stars.
Pierzynski's offense is one that is as simple as it is, in baseball circles anyway, unforgivable: he is aggravating to play against. It is not that he cheats. Any conversation about his malfeasance will include mention of the time he ran to first base on a third strike that was incorrectly ruled to have hit the dirt in the 2005 ALCS, directly leading to a controversial win for the White Sox, and of the time he was punched in the face by Cubs catcher Michael Barrett in '06. The MLB rulebook does not forbid running to first base, nor getting punched in the face.
Pierzynski's reputation is mostly based on his perceived violations of baseball's other set of rules, the unwritten ones. Among the charges levied against him in the case of Baseball v. Pierzynski:
He runs across the pitcher's mound after he has been thrown out at first base. "I've tried to avoid that," he said. "I try to run around it, or whatever." His attempts have sometimes been unsuccessful.
He sometimes celebrates after he has made a big play. "He'll catch a guy stealing at second, and then he'll turn around and find the people in the stands he's left tickets for and point at them, like, 'You see what I just did?'" said a pro scout who has watched him extensively.
He talks too much. "He's always sayin' stuff," explains his manager, Robin Ventura. Adds his mother: "His teachers used to say, 'Oh my god, I hear him in my sleep.'"
Sometimes, his talking includes loudly cursing from behind the plate after an opposing player has gotten a hit, thereby intimating that the player is not skilled enough to have done so. "I might yell an obscenity if we made a bad pitch," Pierzynski admits.
After he has made an out, he often abuses his equipment -- particularly his helmet and his bat -- in such a way as to suggest that the pitcher got him out due to luck rather than skill. "Getting out obviously isn't fun," Pierzynski said. "You make an out, sometimes you get mad. Wish I wouldn't."
In other words, Pierzynski is intense, but he fails to appropriately hide his intensity in compliance with baseball norms. "I'm bad at that," he said. "People ask me to play poker, but I can't. I have the worst poker face of all time." The strange thing is that Pierzynski is far from the only player to consistently exhibit such behaviors. "There's a lot of other guys like that, throw helmets," said Ventura. "Paul O'Neill did the same stuff, but he's the nicest guy in the world. A.J. does it, and he's the most hated guy in baseball."
Reputations in baseball, as in life, are easy to acquire and difficult to shed, and a common refrain among those who have played with Pierzynski is that they cannot comprehend why his is worse than that of virtually anyone else. "People like to stamp guys from the beginning," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, Pierzynski's teammate with the Twins from 1998 to 2002, and a friend. "One guy says it, and then everyone else follows what that guy says, and then, boom."
"He's not any more of a d--- than anyone else," said White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn. "Throw his helmet? Who doesn't? He has this reputation, and once you're labeled as something, you do any little thing and it gets blown up."